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Panel wants its meetings polite

School board drafts a code amid charges of muzzling

School Department official Sam DePina urged an audience not to crowd the stage before a committee meeting. School Department official Sam DePina urged an audience not to crowd the stage before a committee meeting. (John Blanding/ File/ The Boston Globe)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / August 1, 2011

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When the Boston School Committee voted on a new budget in March, protesters brought in a fake casket and tombstone to represent the cuts.

At another meeting, dozens of people trying to push their way into School Department headquarters clashed with police, who blocked the front doors because the committee chamber was packed.

And last December, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson was twice forced to halt her speech defending planned school closings because of loud - and at times rude - heckling from the audience of more than 500 students, parents, and teachers.

“Liar!’’ some repeatedly screamed during Johnson’s speech.

Now, the School Committee, frustrated by what it considers to be an alarming breakdown in decorum at meetings, is drafting a code of conduct for audience members.

While the rules are in the early stages of development, committee members are weighing the possibility of barring cheering, heckling, prolonged clapping, banners, signs, and props, and also prohibiting speakers from turning their backs to the board and addressing the audience directly.

What rankles the School Committee the most, members say, are the personal attacks that some attendees lob at them.

“When people point the finger and call you names and threaten you, I consider that disrespectful,’’ member Alfreda Harris said during a School Committee discussion last month on the proposed policy. “They have no right to disrespect the superintendent or us as a board. . . . People who come here and disrespect us need to be removed.’’

The proposed rules are already proving unpopular among many students, teachers, parents, and activists, who say the mayor-appointed board is attempting to muzzle their First Amendment rights while delivering students a poor lesson in civic engagement in a city where civil disobedience sparked the American Revolution.

Richard Stutman, the teachers’ union president who irked the committee last fall when he turned his back to the board on more than one occasion to rally the audience, said in jest, “I think the School Committee should instead adopt rules from Stalinist Russia, because neither group wanted or appreciated democracy.’’

“It’s bad enough the School Committee doesn’t listen,’’ Stutman said. “Now they are saying people can’t make noise?’’

The Rev. Gregory Groover, the board’s chairman, emphasized that the panel wants to foster a welcoming environment at its meetings and that “we don’t want to create an imperialistic tone.’’

“We believe people can express anger, but in a respectful way,’’ Groover said in an interview.

Reflecting on some past meetings, he added, “There were some individuals who tried to capitalize on the event and turn it into a rally that you would experience in the street, and that’s not what the School Committee is about.’’

Groover, however, said he has no problems with people bringing in signs, but noted that some other committee members do.

The School Committee has no written rules on audience participation except for a requirement that speakers must sign up in advance and keep remarks to three minutes.

The rules the committee is contemplating largely mirror those of the Boston City Council, which ban signs, banners, cheering, clapping, and booing. Any violation could prompt the clearing of the council’s public gallery, according to the rules posted on the city’s website.

Across the state, many school committees have established rules for public participation, according to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

In Boston, School Committee meetings for years have typically been staid affairs that draw mostly central office employees, a flock of education advocates, and a few reporters. But increasingly, the meetings have taken on a more acrimonious tenor as the city has grappled with several years of budget cutting.

On many nights, students, parents, teachers, and activists have flooded the committee chamber, on the first floor of the School Department’s downtown headquarters, to protest two rounds of school closings and other budget reductions that have eliminated hundreds of positions and some academic programs. Often they arrive with signs, prepared speeches, and pages of petitions, sometimes following a rally outside that featured drumming, chanting, and blaring horns.

But attendees frequently leave the meetings discouraged, feeling they have not been heard; that sentiment prompts some attendees to up the ante at the next meeting.

“With this appointed board, we seem to be moving further and further away from the Democratic process, especially by stifling public input,’’ said Barbara Fields, a member of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, who has been an observer of the city’s School Committee meetings for three decades.

“I don’t favor people booing, but I think the committee needs to look at the root cause - why people are behaving that way. It’s systemic of the frustration people are feeling with the School Committee,’’ Fields said.

The School Committee and the superintendent often blame the raucous meetings largely on the city’s school bus drivers’ union, which often organizes rallies before meetings and instructs attendees about their rights to bring signs into the chamber.

That union works in partnership with the Coalition for Equal Quality Education, a grass-roots organization that also includes the black educators’ alliance and other community-based groups.

Steve Kirschbaum, a bus union representative, called the proposed rules “outrageous.’’

Some teachers and activists are urging the School Committee to draft a code of conduct for itself. They point to an incident at a Dec. 15 meeting at which member Claudio Martinez ridiculed a young man in the audience, prompting a teacher to jump to the man’s defense. The incident came near the end of a four-hour meeting that featured frequent heckling and booing by the crowd of more than 500.

Groover said the committee is planning to assess the way it does business this fall and will seek public opinion.

Some members of the Boston Student Advisory Council questioned whether a code of conduct would be effective in quieting an audience, and they worry that students might feel disenfranchised.

“How are you going to enforce no clapping or booing?’’ asked Colin Smith, 18, an advisory member who in June was in the last graduating class from Social Justice Academy in Hyde Park, after unsuccessfully fighting to keep it open. “What happens if you can’t identify the person who did the clapping or booing?’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis.